Mozilla this week began to switch on an aggressive anti-tracking technology in Firefox that it has touted since 2015.
With a June 4 update to Firefox 67, Mozilla turned on Enhanced Tracking Protection (ETP) by default for new users. Existing customers simply updating their browsers may enable ETP themselves. The default-of-on will be extended to those users “in the coming months,” Mozilla said, apparently activating it in stages as a last-step quality control.
Mozilla also used the update to Firefox 67.0.1 to trumpet other privacy- and security-centric enhancements, including an add-on that brings its Lockwise password manager to the desktop browser and an improved Facebook Container, an extension designed to keep the social network behemoth from tracking users elsewhere on the web.
A short history of ETP
Enhanced Tracking Protection was the main attraction to the update – according to Mozilla’s numbering system, a minor one at that, what with version 67 debuting weeks ago – if only because the developer has long talked about the feature.
Originally called just “Tracking Protection” and restricted to Firefox’s private browsing mode, the technology blocked a range of content, not just online advertisements but also in-page trackers that sites or ad networks implanted to follow users around the web. But there was a problem with stymying this cross-site tracking: When switched on, Tracking Protection often broke sites.
Later – in November 2017, with Firefox 57, aka “Quantum” – Mozilla expanded Tracking Protection to cover non-private browsing. Problems persisted, however.
By Firefox 63, which shipped in October 2018, Mozilla said it had tamed the feature’s tendency to break websites, and so added “Enhanced” to the name, resulting in ETP. “The feature more surgically targets the problem of cross-site tracking without the breakage and wide-scale ad blocking which occurred with our initial Tracking Protection implementation,” Peter Dolanjski, a Firefox project lead, claimed at the time.
ETP was off by default in Firefox 63, but Mozilla planned to switch that to on-by-default two versions later, in Firefox 65, scheduled to show up Jan. 29, 2019. Firefox 65 came and went, though, without a change to ETP’s out-of-the-box setting. “Before we roll this feature out by default, we plan to run a few more experiments and users can expect to hear more from us about it,” explained Nick Nguyen, Mozilla’s vice president of product strategy, at Firefox 65’s release.
Existing users can turn on ETP by choosing “Content Blocking” from the menu that appears after clicking the three horizontal lines at the top right of the Firefox frame. Fill the “Custom” button then in the list beside “Trackers” select “In all windows.” Next, check the “Cookies” box and in the list pick “Third-party trackers.” Click “Reload all tabs” to make the changes take effect.
Instead, Mozilla went with a soft default in Firefox 67.0.1 – “soft” because it was immediately in effect only for brand-new users of the browsers, a tiny number compared to the installed base – and a lengthy roll-out to most.
Facebook Container and Lockwise, too
Mozilla’s Pope described other recent enhancements to Firefox’s ecosystem that played to the privacy and security theme of not only ETP but the company’s prime message to potential users.
An update to the Facebook Container add-on now “prevents Facebook from tracking you on other sites that have embedded Facebook capabilities such as the Share and Like buttons on their site,” Pope said.
The extension, which debuted in March 2018, came out of work the year before on something called “Firefox Multi-Account Containers.” That feature segregated accounts – tied to email addresses, for example, or to a specific social service, like Facebook – so that tracking couldn’t seep from one part of a user’s online personality to another. These add-ons accomplished this by storing cookies associated with one account separately from cookies linked to other accounts.
New to the desktop browser, said Pope, is an add-on for Mozilla’s Lockwise (née Lockbox) that let users manage the passwords saved by Firefox, and sync them with the browser on iOS and Android.
Lockwise doesn’t offer the advanced features of a dedicated password manager – something like 1Password, for example, on macOS – but streamlines password-related chores over dealing with them from the Firefox settings page.
More information about Lockwise can be found on Mozilla’s website.